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Keith Sonnier, Untitled (Neon and Cloth), 1968

Keith Sonnier completed Untitled (Neon and Cloth) in 1968, a work in which an arc of light hovers between pastel strands of satin and sheer cloth. Tethered to the wall alongside a black electrical cord, the neon blinks with a transformer’s slight click. Sonnier, often labeled a 'Post-Minimalist', abandoned conventional sculptural materials in favor of those that offered a more immediate sensorial experience. Walk briskly by Untitled (Neon and Cloth) and its gauzy tails flutter. Turn away and the transformer continues its rhythm, recalling leaky faucets or falling rain. If marble and bronze were used to erect enduring monuments, then neon and cloth connect to more individual experiences of time and space.

Writer, critic, and curator Lucy Lippard coined the term “Eccentric Abstraction” to describe the work of artists like Sonnier, Hesse, and Nauman, all of whom she included in her 1966 exhibition of the same title at the Fischback Gallery in New York. She stated, “[. . . ] even if [the sculptures] are not supposed to be touched, they are supposed to evoke a sensuous response.”[1] The layered cloth of Untitled (Neon and Cloth), with its differing degrees of transparency, echoes Sonnier’s early experimentation with textiles and evocations of the body in Lay In (1967) or of peeling skin in Flocked Neon (1969/2019). In a 2011 interview, Sonnier stated that “[t]ouch, as opposed to concept, was crucial” to his early sculpture.[2] For both maker and viewer, the phenomenological experience of the materials that comprise a sculpture is key to understanding them.

Untitled (Neon and Cloth), 1968 has a rich exhibition history. First shown in 1968 at Galerie Ricke in Cologne, it was later included in the infamous Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, an exhibition curated by Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle Bern. From March 22 – April 27, 1969, the galleries were transformed through “the liberating process of making things, without limits, defenses, plinths and territorial restrictions.”[3] Richard Serra splashed lead at the base of a gallery wall, while Michael Heizer created Depression on the sidewalk outside the museum with a wrecking ball. In an installation view, Untitled (Neon and Cloth) is suspended in the right corner of a room alongside works by Bill Bollinger, Eva Hesse, and Richard Tuttle. This controversial presentation redrew the boundaries of conventional exhibition practice and curatorial process. As a testament to the exhibition’s role in reshaping these disciplines, it was restaged in 2013 at Fondazione Prada. On this occasion, Untitled (Neon and Cloth) traveled to Venice and was exhibited as it was in 1969. Most recently, Untitled (Neon and Cloth) was presented alongside a larger body of Sonnier’s work at Castelli Gallery, as part of Ethereal/Ephemeral: Keith Sonnier in the Sixties.

-Castelli Gallery

 

[1] Lucy R. Lippard, "Eccentric Abstraction," in Changing Essays in Art Criticism, (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1971), 104.

[2] Keith Sonnier, interview by Barbara Bertozzi Castelli in Keith Sonnier: Files, (New York: Leo Castelli, 2011), 6.

[3] Germano Celant, “A Readymade: When Attitudes Become Form,” in When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013, (Venice: Foundazione Prada, 2013), 404.

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